Like a lot of sports fans, I spent my Thursday evening phasing in and out of LeBron James' 60-minute ESPN spectacular, in which he revealed he'd join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat roster. I wound up watching more of it than I planned for several reasons: 1.) I was curious as to how exactly a ten-second statement could be stretched out to a full hour, and 2.) that ten-second statement didn't occur until almost halfway through the aforementioned program.
By the end of the hour I found myself mired in a state of misery. It was an odd reaction, considering that as a student of NBA history, I recognize that James' announcement is probably the best thing that's happened to the league since Michael Jordan took a sabbatical in 1999. There's no question that the supergroup that is the Heat will be the prohibitive favorite in the NBA, and that the attention the franchise will now garner can help establish the NBA as the clear No. 2 league in the United States, behind the NFL.
However, the combination of the program's uncomfortable brown-nosing and softball questions only made me feel worse for the sports fans of Cleveland, Ohio, who ESPN had already declared "The Most Tortured Sports City in America" way back in 2004. It's 2010 now, and the fact that they just lost LeBron James, their greatest player in franchise history, only increases the torture ten-fold.
There's a lot to get to, and if you didn't watch the special event, you're in luck. Here are the five biggest questions, and answers, surrounding "The Decision":
1. Did "The Decision" work as an hour of programming?
In an interview with the Associated Press, ESPN's vice president of production, Norby Williamson, stated on Wednesday that he had no plan on stretching out the LeBron announcement. He said that it would come within the first ten minutes of the show, saying:"We’re not going to string it along. That wouldn’t benefit anyone; not us, not sports fans, not LeBron."
It was an interesting comment, especially considering it took 28 full minutes for LeBron to reveal he was going to Miami -- not ten. Yes, there was some A-class stringing at work. But then again, ESPN and James have been stringing everybody along for months now. Williamson was probably thinking, "Heh, what's an extra 18 minutes."
This over-prolonging of The Decision made the first 28 minutes an utter annoyance to sit through. ESPN killed off time by filling it with a speculative discussion by Jon Barry, Michael Wilbon and Chris Broussard, who spoke at length about how great James would look in a Chicago Bulls uniform. Keep in mind that this was preceded by a special three-hour edition of SportsCenter, which was nothing but speculation and analysis over where James would go. In other words, the Barry-Wilbon-Broussard discussion served no purpose other than to eat up time, and was particularly pointless since James' inevitable announcement had him bypassing the Bulls altogether.
It wasn't until 23 minutes in that the camera at last cut to LeBron James, who was sitting in a director's chair opposite Jim Gray, in a Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. Gray hadn't worked for ESPN in a few years, and it was certainly odd to see Stewart Scott pitch it out to him. LeBron, who probably grew up watching Gray back when he was a sideline reporter for the NBA on NBC, had personally requested that he be the one to ask the questions.
The background of the stage, meanwhile, was loaded with various children from the B&G Club, which was obviously a calculated decision on LeBron's part, since none of them got to speak or do anything besides looking cute. Surely, he thought, the site of children will dampen the blow I'm about to inflict on the city of Cleveland. They can't hate a guy who helps children, can they?
Unfortunately, it took another five minutes of set-up questions before the big question was finally asked. Those five minutes were filled with an awkward banter by Gray and James, awkward because the on-edge crowd was dead silent the whole time. And why wouldn't they be? When you hold in your possession the answer to some great question that everyone's dying to know, like who it was who killed John F. Kennedy, you don't waste your time asking questions like "So, what's new?" or "Have you enjoyed this recruiting process?" or "Are you still a nail-biter?" -- all of which Gray asked him. You ask the big question FIRST.
Finally, FINALLY, the moment arrived. At 9:28, the camera zoomed in on James' face, the tension increased, and Gray asked LeBron what his Decision was... James replied, "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach," an answer that was met not by cheers from the Boys & Girls crowd, but by gasps.
With the suspense over, the rest of the program was pointless by this point, but I stuck around to watch the final half-hour anyway. I wanted to see the sort of questions that Wilbon and Barry and Scott would ask LeBron when they eventually got to interviewing him. How disappointed I was to see the stream of softball questions that ensued. ESPN confirmed on Wednesday that James was not getting paid for the special, and that there were no stipulations regarding the non-Gray-LeBron content. But you wouldn't know it from watching the split-screen interview. Both Wilbon and Barry focused their questions on what it would be like to share the ball with D-Wade and Chris Bosh, and how he was going to readjust to life in Miami -- questions that would have been fine at any other time -- but not here.
The circumstances that surrounded this program, titled "The Decision," just begged hardcore questions, and I had wishfully expected a few to be asked. Sure, they asked questions about how hard it was for him to leave Cleveland, and how he couldn't possibly expect to walk the streets of Cleveland again. But they never asked anything about the special itself. Why was it that he had to say goodbye to the Cavaliers in the most torturous, painful way possible: by marketing it in a one-hour special? Wasn't it egotistical to even have a one-hour primetime announcement in the first place? What about all the stuff he had said before, about how important it was to play in his home state, and how he had promised to bring his home state a ring? Surely he can't seriously expect his fans (well, ex-fans) in Cleveland to respect his decision, after he jerked them around for all this time?
In the end, ESPN did little to lessen the impression that it's the LeBron James Network. But when you own the rights to the NBA Finals, which ESPN does, you can hardly be expected to be an objective voice.
2. What does this mean for the Cleveland Cavaliers?
If you needed proof that LeBron James is the best player in the NBA, feast your eyes on the Cleveland Cavaliers' projective starting lineup sans LBJ: Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, Jemario Moon, Antawn Jamison and Anderson Varejao. As the team is currently constituted, the Cavaliers will be lucky to win 25 games next year -- which is amazing considering they won 60 in back-to-back seasons. And rebuilding won't be an immediate process either, since Jamison still has two years and $28 million on his contract and will be difficult to move, as will Varejao (four years left) and Williams (three years left).
But the greatest damage that occurred on Thursday was not to the Cavaliers, but to the Cavaliers' disheartened fans. From The Drive to The Catch to The Fumble to The Shot, to losing Game 7 of the 1997 World Series in extra innings, to Art Modell moving the Cleveland Browns, Cleveland sports fans have undergone more punishment than any batch of sports fans in the nation. They haven't experienced a title since 1964, when the Browns won the NFL Championship, and with all three of their teams currently in disrepair, it could be a long, long time before they ever see another one.
The Cavs' attendance will no doubt plummet. The team, coached by Byron Scott, will go back to being irrelevant. The Cavaliers don't rival the Browns in terms of popularity, but there's no question that this is the worst thing that's ever happened to the franchise -- worse than all the times Michael Jordan beat them in the playoffs; worse even than the ownership of Ted Stepien, who wanted to move the team to Canada and rename them the "Toronto Towers."
It's worse because James actually gave them hope, and then ripped it away from them.
3. Of the teams that didn't get LeBron, who is the winner?
There were many losers in the year's free-agent sweepstakes, since the three biggest prizes all wound up on the same team. But that's not to say that some of the teams don't have something else to speak for.
Even though the Chicago Bulls failed to acquire Wade or James (their principle targets), they did manage to sign Carlos Boozer and still have Luol Deng, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Unfortunately that's about all they have, since they cleared out the rest of their roster to put themselves under the salary cap. They still have a lot of money to spend with, but unless they're able to acquire another big name like Carmelo Anthony or Michael Redd, they're still in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference, and nowhere near as good as Miami.
The Knicks were ostensibly the favorite in the LeBron race from the very beginning, yet all they could secure was Amar'e Stoudemire. Besides Stoudemire, the Knicks only have five other players on contract, and those five include Eddy Curry, Wilson Chandler, Toney Douglas, Bill Walker and Danilo Gallinari. Dream Team, this ain't. They've got a long way to go before they can even discuss sniffing .500, but Stoudemire is a nice building block, and more importantly, the team is under the salary cap for the first time in the 21st century. Things are looking up.
I can't be so optimistic about the New Jersey Nets, however. You can talk all you like about how young and talented the core of the team is; "young" is a nice buzz word that hides the fact that they were one of the five worst teams IN HISTORY last season, and that any statistics a player put up have to be discounted because somebody has to score. Take it from the Arizona Diamondbacks -- you can be young and talented all you like, but unless some of your players actually blossom into something, all that potential doesn't amount to jack. Without even someone like Stoudemire to build around, the Nets are still an NBA bottom-dweller.
The same could be said of the Los Angeles Clippers, although it's entirely dependent on whether or not Blake Griffin is any good. If Griffin is indeed worthy of his No. 1 pick in 2009, then the Clippers have a bright future with him, Baron Davis and a nice amount of cap room. If Griffin doesn't pan out, however, then the Baron Davis-Chris Kaman Show won't be enough to haul them out of the gutter.
4. Does this explain why James changed his number to No. 6?
Remember earlier this year, when James' Cavaliers went down to Miami, and played before Michael Jordan -- who happened to be sitting in the crowd? It was after that particular game that James announced his intention to change his uniform number from No. 23 to No. 6, which he said he was doing because he wanted Jordan's No. 23 to be retired throughout the NBA. It just so happens that Jordan's uniform was retired by the Miami Heat back in 2003; Pat Riley did it because he respected Jordan's skills so much, although most people found it bizarre to retire the uniform of a player who never even played for them.
Nonetheless, it makes sense why James would have to change his number. He couldn't stick with the No. 23 in Miami, since the team has already retired it.
5. Just how good are the Miami Heat?
[insert over-exaggerated metaphor]
If all goes as planned, the Heat could be as good as the 1999-2000 Los Angeles Lakers, who were led by a still-Afro'd Kobe Bryant, a truly unstoppable Shaquille O'Neal, Glen Rice, Robert Horry, and a plethora of other role players such as Brian Shaw, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, A.C. Green and Ron Harper. In order for the Heat to rival that Lakers team, they of course need to fill out the rest of their roster with serviceable role players who won't mind being the fourth scoring option.
As to how the Heat compare to teams in this day and age, there's no question that they're the most star-powered team in the NBA. For years, analysts have commented that if only Wade and LeBron had one other scoring threat with them, like Kobe has in Pau Gasol, their teams could easily be contenders. Well now they're on the same team, including Chris Bosh, and there's no reason to think they won't wipe the floor with the rest of the league.
Sure, there are questions about how well they'll do when it comes to sharing the ball. But remember, the Boston Celtics' big three of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett came together in 2007 with no prior experience, and they wound up winning a championship. The Miami big three, however, all played on the 2008 men's Olympic team, and played well enough for the U.S. to sweep their way to a Gold Medal. Not only that, but the Heat's big three is substantially better and younger than Boston's was the year they won it all: LeBron is superior to Garnett, Wade is superior to Pierce, and Bosh is superior to Allen.
Assuming they don't all kill each other over who gets to shoot the ball, we could be looking at a 70-win team (barring injury).
That may seem like hyperbole for a team that can barely constitute a starting lineup. But there's no reason to think that role players won't flock to Miami like they did to Boston in 2007; the Celtics managed to attract the likes of James Posey, Sam Cassell, P.J. Brown, and Eddie House, and keep in mind that Boston isn't nearly as attractive to live in as Miami, Florida -- especially in the winter. Plus, the Eastern Conference is just loaded with disposable Washington Generals-esque opponents. Sure, Orlando and Boston and Chicago are good, but what's after that? The drop-off is enormous, and there's no reason why the Heat won't clean up.
The bottom line is that as long as you have a core nucleus of two or three GREAT players, everyone else is interchangeable. It isn't a coincidence that the only two players who were a part of all six Chicago Bulls championships were Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen; the team went through a complete overhaul (aside from Pippen) after Jordan retired in 1993, and they wound up better than they ever were when he came back in '95. Same thing with the Celtics of the 1980's, who had a completely different bench almost every time they went to the finals.
As long as Wade and LeBron -- two of the three best players in the game -- are on the same team, as well as with Bosh, nothing should stand in their way.
- Last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers had the second-highest local ratings of any sports team in the country (8.59 rating). Only the Boston Red Sox had a higher viewership. (Via Sports Media Watch) Regional sports ratings go through radical ups-and-downs, and considering the height of the Cavs' popularity, the ratings decline could be colossal.
- You may have noticed that after LeBron announced he was going to Miami, ESPN reported on its news ticker that "computer simulations" projected the Heat to go 66-16 next year. Has the news crawl been so devalued that loading NBA 2K10 into an XBOX, pressing the 'simulate season' button and then writing about it really counts as news? I do that all day!
- What are the odds of the L.A. Lakers playing the Miami Heat on Christmas Day? I'd say somewhere in the ballpark of.... 100%.
- The final thing I'm going to say about the LeBron James signing is this: there has never been anything like it. There has never been a player of his magnitude who so willingly abandoned a city that was so dependent on him being there. It's not like LeBron James was some out-of-place urban boy who didn't like it in the Midwest -- he grew up there. He lived there. And for him of all people to decide to take less money to play somewhere that isn't Cleveland...it's just a stunner, let alone doing it on an hour-long ego trip on national television.
- Photo Credits in order of appearance: Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Estabrook Group.....Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Estabrook Group.....Photo by J.D. Pooley/Getty Images.....Photo by Christopher Capozziello/Getty Images.....Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images.....Multiple photos courtesy of Getty Images.